The Who step up in Boston on pure determination
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
We’re in the synthesizer break towards the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Boston’s TD Garden is dark, and in the shadows we can see Pete Townsend lurched over his guitar, pacing and waiting to launch back into the chord that brings us back into the song.
Zak Starkey is on drums, as he has been for the better part of 20 years now, and begins that furious fill that leads up to Roger Daltrey, who right on cue, unleashes a violent scream that would undoubtedly terrify his younger self.
This is the Who, 52 years beyond the release of their first record. They are and remain nothing short of a marvel on stage, and the determination to continue proving themselves is what keeps them in top form.
There’s still, after all this time and 34 years removed from their 1982 “farewell” tour, a brute force in the music that seems to have grown and is utterly impossible to ignore. That opening blast of “Who Are You” was shot off the stage and reverberated off the walls of the arena, a sort of opening salvo and mission statement for the night.
And that mission is simply to play and put on a show that’s worthy of the Who’s name. If there’s any comfort, it’s in the knowledge that theirs is a body of work that shouldn’t be in question. The challenge comes in not just paying a proper tribute to those records and their long-fallen bandmates, but actually stepping up and delivering a performance that, at least in effort, tries to exceed their monumental reputation.
It’s a question they’ve grappled with since Keith Moon’s death in 1978, and just as they seemed to really get their legs under them in 2000 and 2001, John Entwistle’s death threw another set of inescapable questions and doubt into the group’s gears.
It’s also those questions they’ve seemed to revel in answering again and again, with long jaunts from 2002 through 2008, and then again in 2012 and ’13 when they revived Quadrophenia. Here, they were continuing their The Who Hits 50 celebration, interrupted when Roger Daltrey was sidelined with meningitis at the end of last year.
Whether it was the rest or the lingering knowledge that this may, yes, maybe, finally, be their last major tour of arenas, they raised their game again and answered the audience. Mixing all those radio staples with gems from deeper in the catalog, the night was not so much a summary of the band’s work but a reminder of how deep and varied their music has been.
They mixed in early hits like “Pictures of Lily” and a blazing “I Can See For Miles” alongside mid-period pillars “The Real Me” and “Bargain.” The band ran through a tight “My Generation” early in the set and later explored the space in the “Amazing Journey/Sparks” suite and the instrumental “The Rock,” taking the audience for a ride that went beyond a mere package of hits.
“The Rock,” in particular, was a bold demonstration to the lingering power of Quadrophenia and how the music still has such emotional pull. That led directly into a fiery take on “Love, Reign O’er Me,” and was preceded by a delicate take on “I’m One” with Pete Townshend on vocals that quickly became just as scorching as the rest of the night.
That run showed just how focused the two surviving Who members were. If Townshend is the pillar of stubborn determination, Daltrey is the freak force of nature, nailing his scream at the climax of “Love, Reign O’er Me” and then bettering himself on the show-stopping howl that is the exclamation point on “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” He pushes the band and he sets the example with the full fury of his vocal chords, barely a week past his 72nd birthday.
The age of the band isn’t lost on anyone. Towards the end of the night, Daltrey thanked Dr. Steven Zeitels of Massachusetts General Hospital for, “saving my voice seven years ago.” That the band is still going at this stage is, to those without the cynical urge to slam it as a cash-in, simply a feat of strength. An exercise in nostalgia would be to pay money to see a group of old dudes and hired hands half-assing their way through the running order of Who’s Better, Who’s Best. They didn’t play the encore game, they didn’t rattle off rehearsed stage banter. They just burned the house down for two hours and walked away smiling.
This was not nostalgia. This was a celebration that intends to, at minimum, maintain the energy and zeal of the band’s earliest days and set an example going forward. It’s not magic, it’s pure will. How much longer it lasts is up in the air. But for yet another night, the Who were alive and screaming.
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org